By David Greig
Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School | March 21-24
It’s one of the greatest tragedies ever written; Macbeth is dead, Scotland has fallen to the English, and the story is over. Until now. In a startling reimagining of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, David Greig has given us a ‘what next’ scenario. This is a workshop production, a semi-staged opportunity for the public to check in with the second-year Toi Whakaari training actors and see what they’re exploring. The night I went, the actors were looking forward to taking more risks and working their choreography. Surprisingly, it’s really exciting for an audience to be ‘clued-in’ before a play begins on what the actors are doing that night.
But really, does Macbeth need a sequel? It’s not like the first one ended on much of a cliff hanger. Following the New Zealand International Arts Festival’s fascination with Shakespeare, director Rachael Henry has given her actors (and her audience) a real treat to work with. Grieg’s play a fast, epic, and contemporary sequel to Macbeth that doesn’t so much extend the plot as subvert it and imbue it with modern concerns. Henry has pushed Grieg’s vision further, splitting some male characters between two genders and including cutaways to Shakespeare’s original.
Dunsinane follows the idealistic English General, Siward (Philip Anstis), leading the English into Scotland. He is charged with rebuilding the nation, apparently “a settled quarrel is a settled kingdom.” Unfortunately, tying up the loose ends of Shakespeare’s Macbeth isn’t as easy as first thought. For one, Lady Macbeth is still alive, and is no less ambitious and scheming. Furthermore Scotland has become a more unfamiliar, hostile, and wild land, incomprehensible to the English. Many claims to the throne, political machinations and unsettled masses make achieving peace, or what the English see as peace, difficult. Universal questions about the ethics of conflict pepper the play: “Leaving, defeated, what’s the difference?”, “Do we have to be quite so ruthless in the pursuit of peace?” It turns out Macbeth was tied up a little too conveniently for writer, David Grieg.
While being a workshop production makes assessing individual performances unnecessary, and possibly hurtful, special mention must go to the stamina of Philip Anstis’s Siward, tasked with the impossible, and the raw power and pride of Macduff (Tom Knowles) and Mairead (Lucy Suttor). Importantly, for a production set in Scotland accents were ‘optional’, and those who attempted to tackle them did our colonial homeland proud. Music and sound effects created by the cast stood out as a production highlight.
At its core Dunsinane is an investigation of the colonial mindset; it uses the story of Macbeth and its possible consequences to parallel England’s invasion of Afghanistan. By responding to the well-established division of heroes and villains at the end of one of England’s most well known plays, Greig unsettles those under read European assumptions and asks his audience to interrogate their own colonial attitudes. This production removes the Afganistan context, and so extends these questions to any cultural conflict.
Dunsinane asks us to reimagine what tragedy is. Macbeth is a traditional tragedy through and through, but Dunsinane walks an interesting line. There are recognisably Shakespearean tragic devices, but rather than exploding in cathartic sobs Grieg suggests the real tragedy is the futility of conflict and the myth of peace.
It is an ambitious undertaking for Greig, Henry, and the 22 young actors, and the end result of this workshop production is as unsettling and poignant as the first time we saw Macbeth.